Attack of the Martians
On October 30, 1938, many citizens of the United States were thrown into a panic by news of an attack by aliens from outer space.
CBS was broadcasting an exciting drama based on the H.G. Wells novel, War of the Worlds, published 40 years before. The science fiction classic told of an attack by weirdly shaped alien beings from the planet Mars. These monstrous creatures were armed with heat rays and gigantic war machines and were bent on conquest. The story was rewritten to place the time and locale in 1938 America, and the radio drama was directed and narrated by actor and future filmmaker Orson Welles. The broadcast was the Halloween episode of the Mercury Theater on the Air.
The timing of the broadcast is significant in understanding its impact. The airwaves were already filled with rumors of war and destruction because of growing tensions in Europe. Also, the planet Mars had a particular interest for the average nonscientist. After all, it was the “war” planet, and during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, based on telescopic observations, it was erroneously believed that there were canals on Mars, indicating some sort of civilization. By the 1920s improved astronomical instruments had revealed these “canals” to be an optical illusion. For the general public, however, fascination with Mars remained.
After a brief introduction, the radio drama was presented as a typical evening of radio programming being interrupted by a series of news bulletins. The first few bulletins cut into a program of dance music and described a series of odd explosions observed on Mars. This was followed by a seemingly unrelated report of an unusual object falling on a farm in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. Another brief musical interlude was interrupted by a live report from Grover’s Mill, where police officials and a crowd of curious onlookers had surrounded the strange cylindrical object which had fallen from the sky. The situation quickly escalates when Martians emerge from the cylinder and attack using a heat-ray, abruptly cutting off the shouting of the panicked reporter at the scene. This is followed by a rapid series of increasingly alarming news updates detailing a devastating alien invasion taking place around the world and the futile efforts of the U.S. military to stop it. The first portion of the show climaxes with another live report describing giant Martian war machines releasing clouds of poisonous smoke across New York City.
The drama was presented in a very realistic way as a series of live on-the-scene reports, with no commercial breaks during the first 35-40 minutes. By the time of the supposed attack on New York City, many of the more gullible citizen listeners were in a state of panic. The program changed to a more conventional radio drama format after a post mid-point break, but by that time the damage was done.
On the following day, many newspapers had front page articles about reactions to the War of the Worlds broadcast. The New York Time’s headline read, “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact.”
CBS radio stations were flooded with calls from anxious listeners. There were rumors of suicides. A Princeton professor later published a book about the phenomenon. Professor Hadley Cantril calculated that some six million people heard “The War of the Worlds” broadcast. He estimated that 1.7 million listeners believed the broadcast was an actual news bulletin and, of those, 1.2 million people were frightened or disturbed. There are other researchers who believe that Cantril’s numbers are exaggerated, but there is no doubt that the radio drama did startle or terrify a considerable number of people.